Emerging World Picture

By Rolf Edberg
A Layman's View on the Responsibility of Science
[Address given at the University of Gothenburg on October 19, 1974 on receiving an honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Dr. Edberg is Governor of the Province of Varmland, and a well-known Swedish author.]

We are traveling through a land of which we can catch only fleeting glimpses. Where we are going we don't know.

In our own generation we have, however, entered on a phase of swiftly receding horizons. Our search has revealed more during the last generation than during the entire journey hitherto about man himself, his world and the cosmos in which we exist.

What marks the human being as an intelligent being is that he can build up within himself a model of the outer reality he believes he perceives. This model is in process of being radically re-formed.

If we look at our globe we suddenly find that the continents whereon we multiply and create what we call world history are not the immovable rocks we supposed a couple of decades ago. Instead we believe them to be floating like floes on the plastic interior of the earth, that oceans are opened where the floes drift apart and that mountain ranges become massed where drifting floes inexorably press against one another through periods invisible to man but on a geologic scale. Just as the continental rocks are transformed into drifting floes, so other forms, hitherto thought to be stable, are dissolved. The globe itself, where it rotates wrapped in the veil of its atmosphere but also enclosed in what is beginning to be called the solar atmosphere, has no solid boundaries but is constantly exchanging particles with the universe. Listening to the radioactive ticking of matter's own clocks and reading the ancient but newly discovered code of the magnetic particles that have reached our globe throughout the ages and arranged themselves in distinctive patterns, mainly in the sediment beneath the oceans, we are beginning to get a new and surer picture of the history of the earth.

With our radio telescopes we can simultaneously penetrate outward in the universe billions of light-years before the time when our own solar system began to take shape from a whirling mass of gas. One after the other we discover phenomena in the cosmos that cannot be explained by the natural laws we have hitherto held valid.

Out of all that is many-faceted, hard to interpret and perhaps forever inexplicable, there emerges a picture of a universe where everything stands in relation to everything else, where the microcosm of the single cell is governed by the same forces as the macrocosm of the galaxies. Herein man exists as a momentary fragment, genetically bound to all other life on this heavenly body, a part of its fermenting mass of life and ultimately born of the raw material of the stars. In the new picture that is taking shape we see ourselves as built up of elementary particles that no longer seem to be either elementary or particles but some sort of qualities, held together by electromagnetic forces that extend beyond the observable body, and that in some not yet defined manner seem to stand in relation to events in the cosmos, perhaps many light-years distant.

Naturally our horizon still remains limited, however much we increase the domain of our knowledge. Human observation must take its bearings, as Arnold Toynbee expressed it, from that point in space and moment in time where we find ourselves. We can only observe what lies nearest in space, the boundless and, in time, the fathomless. As regards the grand design we are like the weaver who works on his detail from the back of a great tapestry, whose obverse he never can see.

Nevertheless, they are overwhelming panoramas that research has opened for us by reaching ever farther out into cosmic space and by burrowing ever deeper into the interior of matter. The outlooks are fascinating — yet disturbing. While research is remolding our world picture, it is also giving us new power over ourselves and our environment, which may be decisive for the future of life on this splinter of space.

Perhaps we are actually poised at the beginning of something that may be just as revolutionary to our species as once was the upright posture and the growing ability to construct tools.

All has happened with bewildering rapidity. Old axioms that one used to cling to, have constantly to give place to new ones, perhaps also temporary.

There is a law of inertia that applies to axioms and minds, which fends off new gains and viewpoints. Max Planck illustrated this when he wrote bitterly in his autobiography that a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and letting them see the light, but rather because the opponents happen to die off and new generations grow up that are familiar with it.

Max Planck's note makes apparent only that men and women of research do not necessarily and always have a more receptive apparatus than people outside of laboratories and observatories. Yet this is what is expected of the researcher: that he be prepared to sacrifice his cherished hypotheses when new discoveries appear on the horizon — this is what should distinguish scientific method from theological dogma. Even though there are numerous examples of scientific orthodoxy, research does on the whole follow the maxim of humble seeking and testing. Were this not the case, we should not have attained this phase where new findings are pouring over us at such a rate that a scientific text — as someone said — often risks becoming obsolete on its way to the printers.

The central responsibility of science lies on another plane: to introduce to a broad public the new world view to which space research and nuclear physics, ecology and ethology, geophysics and parapsychology contribute their building blocks. Primarily this responsibility comes from what we may call the privileged position of research. Our senses as biological beings may be ever so marvelous. Carbon that cannot see, hydrogen that cannot hear, oxygen that cannot think, have combined in us as an association through which cosmos can observe itself and ponder on its own being. But the scope of the "Conventional" senses is narrow. Natural sciences, sprung from man's attempts to understand himself, have been able to achieve their discoveries by means of artificial senses. It is by means of these that we can among other things discover the sense organs in ourselves that were hitherto unknown. It is these new dimensions that research — as far as possible — must vitalize for the rest of us.

That task is urgent. It is also pressing.

Many things that are accessible only through advanced thought and advanced instruments affect our everyday life. And since our evaluations and hence our attitudes are determined by the ideas about the universe and about ourselves that govern us at each moment, the way in which we experience the world today and see our own role within the whole will have a decisive significance on the future that will be the now of the next generation.

We have learned with awe that parts of the knowledge gained by searching mankind are so filled with hazards that, carelessly handled, they can threaten the kernel of life. The greatest triumphs of science also entail the greatest risks. We cannot disregard our knowledge. What is decisive is how we use it.

Increased technological know-how and lack of intuition about the interrelationships have hitherto led to depletion of the soil, exploitation of irreplaceable resources, poisoning of the life-bearing elements and a heedless proliferation of our own species. In spite of the fact that an anxious lay opinion has become aware of elementary interrelations, still the exploitation continues, driven onward by knowing economic interests and aided by the unconscious opposition of inertia to a new course.

Still more ominous than the hitherto known consequences of what we are doing are perhaps the still unknown consequences. Up to now we have thought that the atom bomb, the materialization of Einstein's theories and Rutherford's experiments that the originators never foresaw, was the greatest threat to life on earth. Now suddenly an intuition gives voice to a still greater danger that the nuclear detonations blowing nitrous oxides into the higher layers of the atmosphere may rend the thin layer of ozone that protects us against the lethal radiation of space. We have become familiar with the fact that all methods used to produce energy have negative effects on the environment, but we are now beginning to fear that the worst pollution may be the heat that is generated by all energy production, and that together with other air pollution may, at some point as yet unknown, tip the delicate balance on which rests our global climate. Ironically, we are beginning also to ask ourselves whether we do not use unreasonable amounts of energy to obtain energy. Parallel with our manipulation of the outward environment of which man is a part, we are also beginning to manipulate genes and brain cells in a way that can entail unimagined perils for the human race. Recently scientists in U.S.A.'s National Academy of Science and Great Britain's Association for the Advancement of Science gave the alarm and demanded a cessation of certain gene experiments, because it is impossible to preclude entirely the possibility of producing micro-organisms that, if they were to escape outside the laboratories, could have terrible effects on mankind and spread in an uncontrollable chain reaction. On point after point we hear science declare about our progress: we do not know the consequences, we cannot foresee the results.

We have attained a stage in our evolution, where we cannot avoid determining our own fate. It would truly be fatal if the decision were left to a combination of laxity and ignorance — a combination of those who know but fail to act, and those who do not know and therefore act. In this situation a heavy responsibility falls on the men of science to step forth and account for their insights and suspicions of both possibilities and dangers that follow on each new discovery. This does not imply any unrealistic expectations that the researcher always can foresee what use or misuse politics and technology may make of his findings.

What it does imply is that the researcher no longer can shut himself up in his laboratory and occupy himself with his cyclotrons and retorts unconcerned with the manner in which others may apply his theories and observations. In a phase without parallel in mankind's history, the researcher can no longer content himself to show what can be done; he has a new responsibility also to tell his fellow human beings what should be done or left undone and why something should or should not be done. With our environment filled with questions about the consequences of our management up to now, one may well wonder if research should not be held up for a bit and seek the answers to these questions before rushing further. It is no longer a matter of pure research. It may mean life or death.

Along with these purely concrete tasks arises a logical need to subject all our actions to the new world view that is beginning to grow forth. If we would suit our relations to our environment we must know what the wholeness, of which we are a fragment, may be and determine our own place and the part we play in this context. Here I revert to the responsibility of science to bring to life for us the new dimensions of reality.

This all demands a more outgoing attitude than has been regarded, as a rule, to be compatible with the nature of science. The researcher can and must affect the climate wherein political decisions and our fates are determined.

I can believe that for many researchers it takes a certain amount of self-subordination to go out on the marketplace. There would also be certain difficulties of a technical sort. One such difficulty may be in communication. It can be difficult enough to gain a hearing for a message through the spate of information where important things are only too easily drowned in the torrent of peripheral things that are blown up far out of proportion. Besides this there is the fact that the scientific view must be expressed in formulas that are hard to interpret in everyday language, if it is to cover all shadings and reservations. Language is too coarse a tool to bring out the chords of simultaneous point-experiences that music or a mathematical formula can give. Many scientists, who in recent years have stepped forth as clarifiers and alarm clocks, have however shown that it is possible to break through the barrier that separates scientists and laymen.

Another difficulty is that the greater the volume of knowledge grows, the more rigid specialization is demanded. The more the specialization becomes stringent, the more difficult it becomes to grasp the connections in the wealth of facts. The layman who gropes as best he can to orient himself in the changed world picture is struck by the lack of literature that seeks to coordinate our knowledge in different areas into a coherent pattern. As multifarious and intricate as our knowledge has become, and as changeable as the mass of material is in many areas, there is no longer room for individual generalizers of the type fostered by the renaissance. The comprehensive synthesis called for by the times must essentially be a collective work. The cross-scientific legislation that is beginning to be tested at certain institutions of learning and for which this city has become a center on Swedish ground, constitutes a welcome sign that scientists are hearing the cry of our times.

Perhaps what we need is simply a new comprehensive science, an ecosophy, that can bring to life the "Know thyself!" that was the kernel of early philosophy. By ecosophy I mean a way of viewing existence, an attempt to reach an overview of the whole. May it be permitted here for a layman, who is himself deeply grateful for the guiding light that has been given mainly by the natural sciences in the striving for a personal philosophy, to broaden somewhat the frame of the expectations that may be directed toward science.

If we are to clear up our earthly situation it may not suffice in the final analysis to let the mind suck in the axioms that research is continually attaining. It is probably necessary to achieve beyond this an entering into a more profound plane.

When man attained his identity as a species, he lived according to nature's rhythm and conditions. He intuitively merged in the environment. He translated his reverence for the forces that surrounded him into myths and metaphors that in the beginning must have had some of the freshness of the dew. The myths lost their vitality when they were made into dogmas, into something literal. The narrow and definitive world picture that became the result of this process came to stand in clear opposition to the scientific method when this began to develop. The last few centuries have therefore become stamped with the divorce between, on the one hand, the unprejudiced observation and rationalistic thinking and, on the other, beliefs that stood aside from the stream of development.

This splitting has not been without peril. While progressive rationalism was occupied with placing man as a biological and social phenomenon in the broader picture, it has been left to a trailing metaphysics to take an interest in his inner being. The hiatus that arose between views that were frozen into a past world picture, and our new knowledge about the universe and ourselves, now needs to be filled by a real perception of the world and of life. If this does not come about, increasing numbers will seek substitutes in the occult, narcotics and militant salvation creeds, which very soon can become a serious threat to the mind as an instrument and to democracy as a way of community life. What we need, I think, is a reuniting of mind and feeling, of research and living.

Research should be able to cooperate in uniting into something that gives us a vision of our own fate all that our search in various areas has revealed. Man may, from the cosmic perspective, be as fleeting a border-creation as the morning frost — but we still belong to this species, a species that on this little spot in space has developed to where it stands faced with a choice between self-destruction and self-realization. More than heretofore research must take an interest in man's innermost needs.

Deep under the many layers of consciousness there is the urge to enter into something that is greater than the self. Perhaps this is ultimately a need to feel and recognize our affinity with a cosmos of whose stuff we are woven. Never before in the short history of the species have the findings and axioms of science been better fitted to meet these needs.

In the light of what we believe ourselves to know today, it should be possible to rediscover on a new plane something of the communion with nature's creative forces that primitive man intuitively sensed and translated into myths. The farther we penetrate into space with our instruments, the more powerfully do we experience the mystery in a universe that is not so mechanical as Newton's nearest successors supposed — the mystery is there, in some ways greater, since we discarded the myths. Properly experienced, the findings of science can fill us with reverence before the fact that we, as observing and searching consciousnesses, have been permitted to glimpse, if ever so fleetingly, into the vertiginous totality of time and space. Perhaps it is ultimately such an attitude that we need in order to clear up our situation as earth-dwellers.

Science cannot give us any ultimate truth, nor any straight answer to where we are headed. But it can provide a guiding light to make it easier for us to make our way through the landscape it is our destiny to traverse.

 (From Sunrise magazine, January 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)


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